Podcast Discussion Meetings—A Potentially High-Value Event Template For Local Groups

(This post is based on a post I made on the EA Group Or­ganisers Face­book group. I de­cided to post it here in or­der to ‘archive’ it for fu­ture refer­ence, as well as hope­fully show it to a few more peo­ple who may find it use­ful)

In­tro­duc­tion:

Pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings are an event tem­plate for lo­cal EA groups where at­ten­dees, all hav­ing listened to a pre­vi­ously des­ig­nated pod­cast (re­lat­ing to EA), meet up at a so­cial area to dis­cuss it. Usu­ally there will be 1 per­son lead­ing/​ prompt­ing the dis­cus­sion. This is some­thing a small num­ber of lo­cal groups have been host­ing and have seen as well worth­while. This post is to ex­plain pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings and what we have learnt from run­ning them. The ul­ti­mate goal of this post is to en­courage more groups to con­sider host­ing similar events.

To give the brief ver­sion, if ex­e­cuted well, pod­cast dis­cus­sions can prove to be a low-cost event with good value. Prob­a­bly the main benefit we’ve found is that the for­mat has added an ex­tra layer to our group by pro­vid­ing a reg­u­lar meet­ing space where more en­gaged mem­bers can dis­cuss EA top­ics in greater depth than at other events. Other benefits are that it en­gages our core mem­bers in EA ‘liter­a­ture’, it is par­tic­u­larly good at cre­at­ing per­sonal bonds within the group, and acts as a good tool for iden­ti­fy­ing more en­gaged mem­bers in a group.

You should note that I have not done any anal­y­sis of the effec­tive­ness of pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings, and that this post is only meant to en­courage other lo­cal groups to con­sider the for­mat.

Les­sons From The Southamp­ton Tem­plate:

Since April 2018, EA Southamp­ton has been meet­ing up around ev­ery Sun­day in a lo­cal pub to dis­cuss a pre­des­ig­nated, EA re­lated pod­cast. Th­ese of­ten last for 3-4 hours. We will aim to nom­i­nate a pod­cast at least 5 days in ad­vance of the sched­uled weekly meet­ing time (it’s only fair for peo­ple to have a good amount of time to take in what are usu­ally quite large pod­casts).

A ma­jor con­cern that we had be­fore host­ing these events was a lack of in­ter­est due to the com­mit­ment re­quired. We wor­ried that ask­ing uni­ver­sity stu­dents to listen to (some­times close to 3 hours long) pod­casts would lead to peo­ple not turn­ing up or (even worse) turn­ing up not hav­ing listened to the pod­cast. How we chose to com­bat this was by per­son­ally ask­ing our more com­mit­ted mem­bers if they would like to come to each pod­cast talk. As we do not post about them on our Face­book page, this makes pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings some­what ‘in­vite only’. This, I think, has a lot of benefits. Firstly, per­son­ally invit­ing peo­ple has, for us, been very effec­tive at en­sur­ing they turn up hav­ing done all the re­quired listen­ing. It has also given us full con­trol over how many peo­ple we in­volve. We have found that these events cap out at around 8 peo­ple (more would re­quire mul­ti­ple groups). Also, mak­ing these in­vite only adds an­other layer of in­ter­ac­tivity for peo­ple who have been show­ing a lot of in­ter­est in the so­ciety, and can even act as a good tip­ping point for peo­ple who seem like they are con­sid­er­ing be­com­ing more in­volved. Mul­ti­ple times we have had a mem­ber who seems to be es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in EA, but hasn’t fully in­te­grated with the core group. Invit­ing these kinds of peo­ple to these more per­sonal meet­ings has helped ei­ther tip them into be­com­ing heav­ily in­volved, or (if they do not come) has flagged to me that they are not yet fully com­fortable with more ad­vanced-level EA dis­cus­sion. I be­lieve these events have ad­van­tage over other bond­ing events, as they can act as a ‘dou­ble-whammy’; en­hanc­ing a per­son’s feel­ing of com­mu­nity in a way that gets them to en­gage with EA ‘liter­a­ture’.

Another key part of Southamp­ton’s tem­plate is guid­ing the con­ver­sa­tion through notes. I lead the con­ver­sa­tions, and so I will try to listen to the pod­cast twice my­self (though I do not always man­age this), and one of those times I will write down all the thoughts, ques­tions and ob­jec­tions that I can think of. I will then go through these notes and try and iden­tify what could make in­ter­est­ing launch­ing points for dis­cus­sion. I will then bring these dis­cus­sion points with me and use them to guide the event. We have found that my notes are the foun­da­tion of the even­tual dis­cus­sions, and I would definitely recom­mend mak­ing at least some notes. I will com­ment on this post with an ex­am­ple set of dis­cus­sion points I have used in a pre­vi­ous pod­cast meet-up.

Another thing to con­sider is the meet­ing place. A lo­ca­tion that is not too far away from main cam­pus (for uni­ver­sity groups) is prob­a­bly a good place to start, as you know that ev­ery­one is able to get there. Also, it’s im­por­tant to pick some­where that isn’t go­ing to be too busy (af­ter all, you’ve got to be able to hear each other). Another pri­or­ity for speci­fi­cally stu­dent groups is that it is not too ex­pen­sive. We have found that meet­ing at a lo­cal pub works for us.

How EA York’s Tem­plate Differs:

The only other group (I am aware of) that hosts reg­u­lar pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-ups is EA York. This is their thoughts on run­ning pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings:

Jamie: We have been run­ning pod­cast dis­cus­sions in York for around 4 months at the time of writ­ing. I be­lieve them to be some of the most valuable events we run and their suc­cess has led us to in­cor­po­rate this for­mat of dis­cus­sion as a core com­po­nent of our so­ciety’s event sched­ule. Thanks to the re­laxed na­ture of meet­ing in a cafe at the week­end, the events have been great for get­ting to know the most en­gaged mem­bers of our (medium-sized) group bet­ter. Anec­do­tally, it also seems like the for­mat is par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful com­pared to other types of event at get­ting mem­bers to both en­gage with new con­tent and re­tain what they learn.

We have re­cently ex­per­i­mented with the dis­cus­sion for­mat by swap­ping the pod­cast with a long-form ar­ti­cle and, fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the first event (based around Greg Lewis’ EA Fo­rum post on Epistemic Modesty), we are now run­ning these on al­ter­nat­ing weeks with the pod­cast dis­cus­sions. I would note that we differ from EA Southamp­ton in the way that we in­vite mem­bers to the events. We use a Face­book mes­sen­ger group which we find makes it easy to add in­ter­ested peo­ple, link rele­vant con­tent and set event re­minders.

Mor­gan: To pre­pare for each dis­cus­sion I pro­duce a list of ques­tions based on the top­ics dis­cussed in the re­spec­tive pod­cast or long-form ar­ti­cle and note them down on flash cards. I try to loosely guide the dis­cus­sion by pre­sent­ing these ques­tions to the group; that said if I feel as though the dis­cus­sion is go­ing in a pro­duc­tive di­rec­tion which I didn’t ini­tially in­tend, I try to limit my in­terfer­ence. The con­ver­sa­tion is tracked by the grow­ing num­ber of or­dered cards visi­ble to the group. For any un­ex­pected ar­eas of dis­cus­sion that oc­cur, I try to make a note of what was dis­cussed on blank flash cards and then in­sert them into the rele­vant po­si­tion in the or­dered group of cards. I think this pro­vides a good struc­ture to the events and makes it easy to re­view what was dis­cussed once they end.

Con­clu­sion:

This is quite a long post for what shapes up to be quite a sim­ple con­cept, but pod­cast talks are some­thing I think are worth their mod­est prep-time. They act well as com­mu­nity build­ing ex­er­cises (off-hours meet-ups), as a way to get peo­ple in­volved more in EA ‘liter­a­ture’, and pro­vid­ing an op­por­tu­nity to have deeper con­ver­sa­tions about effec­tive al­tru­ism where you are as­sured ev­ery­one shares a ba­sis of knowl­edge. I would love if more groups were to adopt a similar event and would be very in­ter­ested to hear from any­one that had any thoughts/​ad­vice for this kind of event. Thanks for read­ing.

Below is gen­eral ad­vice for groups plan­ning to host pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet­ings. I would recom­mend you read on if you fall into this cat­e­gory.

Gen­eral Ad­vice:

This sec­tion acts to be a com­pre­hen­sive list of all the ad­vice I would have for groups do­ing pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-ups (that was not already cov­ered in the main body of this post).

  • The best pod­cast we have found so far is the 80,000 Hours pod­cast. The Ra­tion­ally Speak­ing pod­cast has shorter epi­sodes, if you want a lower-com­mit­ment event (though not fully EA al­igned). A good in­di­vi­d­ual pod­cast is the Will MacAskill epi­sode of Sam Har­ris’ Wak­ing Up pod­cast. This pod­cast was great for peo­ple with less knowl­edge on EA, but also proved a good pod­cast for us who knew lots about EA (Per­haps this would be a good first pod­cast for a group new to the for­mat).

  • As out­lined above, I will make notes about the pod­cast mostly in the form of ques­tions. Th­ese act to both jog my mem­ory of what was said and to start up con­ver­sa­tion. This sys­tem works well for me, but if you be­lieve you would have trou­ble re­mem­ber­ing what was said in the pod­cast just from notes, 80,000 Hours pod­casts have scripts which you could print off, high­light and an­no­tate.

  • An im­por­tant bal­ance to strike is how much con­trol the dis­cus­sion leader takes. At Southamp­ton dis­cus­sion works well with my notes con­duct­ing much of what we talk about (whilst not be­ing too over­bear­ing or not al­low­ing in­di­vi­d­ual ideas etc.). How­ever, other groups may find this re­stric­tive. In that case, I would recom­mend us­ing York’s sys­tem of cue cards.

  • Gen­er­ally speak­ing, I have found peo­ple ir­ri­tated by pod­casts much longer than 2 hours. The perfect length is prob­a­bly around 1 hour 30 min­utes to 2 hours. The re­cent 80,000 Hours pod­casts have un­for­tu­nately be­come too long for our group, but the ear­lier pod­casts work very well. Also, if you have a lot of grum­bling about the length, re­mind peo­ple that many pod­cast apps al­low you to speed up pod­casts. Some pod­casts, also, split nicely in parts, and you could opt to do half the pod­cast one week and the other half the next etc.

  • It is very im­por­tant to note that not all pod­casts (not even all 80,000 Hours pod­casts) have equal amounts of good top­ics of dis­cus­sion for your group. This is why I would recom­mend listen­ing to the pod­cast once be­fore choos­ing it. Failing this (which I of­ten have), you should try and dis­cern whether the pod­cast is a good one to use. 80,000 Hours have a sec­tion on their web­site which de­scribes each pod­cast and the ques­tions raised in them. I would strongly recom­mend at least read­ing this be­fore nom­i­nat­ing a pod­cast. Also, I will leave a com­ment be­low with which 80,000 Hours pod­casts Southamp­ton has found good for cre­at­ing dis­cus­sion.

  • If you want to host a pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-up with a lot of peo­ple (prob­a­bly around 9 or up­wards) I would recom­mend split­ting into 2 groups and hav­ing 2 dis­cus­sion lead­ers.

  • It can be nice to wrap up a pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-up by the per­son lead­ing the dis­cus­sion overview­ing the main dis­cus­sion top­ics, the thoughts raised by the at­ten­dees, and the gen­eral opinion of the group. I have re­cently been ex­per­i­ment­ing with this wrap-up sec­tion. One thing we have tried is I will make some of the main talk­ing points into a state­ment such as ‘We should put more re­sources into clean meat’, and each at­tendee will give a per­centage of agree­ment with the state­ment. We will then av­er­age this to find what the group has de­cided on some of the main top­ics. How­ever, we have found peo­ple to be quite con­fused by this sys­tem. We have also tried im­prov­ing our wrap-up by me draw­ing a timeline with all the main talk­ing points that came up. This helps to vi­su­al­ise the progress of the dis­cus­sion. You can then send at­ten­dees a photo of this timeline (if you have leg­ible hand­writ­ing).

  • The pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-up tem­plate can be used for other things, too. You could have EAGlobal video dis­cus­sion meet-ups, you could have a more clas­sic ‘book club’. One idea we have had (though have not im­ple­mented yet) is us­ing the tem­plate to meet up and dis­cuss each other’s dis­ser­ta­tions. A few of us have EA re­lated dis­ser­ta­tions, and so these seem like they could be a fun, more per­son­al­ised ex­pe­rience, and gives those writ­ing the dis­ser­ta­tion a chance to air their thoughts to a group. I would love to see some­one hold a pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-up where the guest of the pod­cast was pre­sent at the meet-up.

  • I would mostly recom­mend us­ing pod­cast dis­cus­sion meet-ups as a side-event for a group, and not as a main event. Although there is op­por­tu­nity for learn­ing and ex­plor­ing core EA con­cepts within this tem­plate, I be­lieve these are bet­ter used to com­pli­ment this.

This post was writ­ten by Thomas Billing­ton (Southamp­ton So­ciety), with sec­tions from Jamie Git­tins (York So­ciety) and Mor­gan Simp­son (York So­ciety). Edit­ing cred­its go to Jamie Git­tins and Vicky Cox (Southamp­ton So­ciety).